John Humphrys - Does your lanyard really matter?

May 17, 2024, 2:53 PM GMT+0

Here’s a statement with which most of us can agree. The government is in trouble. Big trouble. With only months to go before a general election the Conservative Party is lagging so far behind in the opinion polls it would take nothing short of a political miracle to rescue it from oblivion. Or, at the very least, from humiliation. And it’s not too hard to see why.

From waiting times in the health service to strikes on the railways. From the price of food to the desperate shortage of housing. From immigration to pollution in our rivers. From the state of our schools to the state of the economy. The list is endless. Or so the opposition in Parliament would argue. So let us consider one of the subjects raised by a cabinet minister this week on which we humble voters were invited to focus our attention.


Yes, those ribbons which many of us hang around our necks to display the ID cards which get us into the office or hospital or wherever we work. A pretty uncontroversial topic, you may say. But it is the colour of the ribbons that has attracted the concern of Esther McVey, the minister tasked with the job of rolling back the tide of wokery that many believe is threatening to swamp the land. Inevitably she has been dubbed the Minister for Common Sense.

More precisely it’s the colour of the lanyards used by government employees that bothers her. The colours of the rainbow. To wear such a lanyard, it seems, implies support for organisations such as LGBTQ+. It tells the world that you are not prejudiced. Indeed you are woke. It signals support for EDI, which stands for equality, diversity and inclusion. And that was the target in Ms McVey’s sights.

The minister believes there is far too much EDI out there and wearing the rainbow lanyard signifies.

It amounts, she said, to ‘the inappropriate backdoor politicisation of the civil service’. And she added this: ‘You don’t need political activism in a visible way … you’re putting [the lanyard] on to make a statement.

She said that the political beliefs of the staff must ‘remain at the front door and when you come in, you’re part of a happy team.’

She also claimed in her speech that public money is being wasted on ‘woke hobby horses’ across Whitehall. She wants to stop any more officials devoted to EDI outside of human resources, with no more staff doing it as their primary role. New guidance is being worked on that would stop all external EDI spending across the civil service unless it is authorised by ministers. Arms-length bodies that spend the most on external EDI will also be called in for meetings with McVey to account for how doing so benefits taxpayers. The public sector, she wrote in the Sunday Telegraph, must not become a ‘pointless job creation scheme for the politically correct’.

The amount of staff time taken up by diversity programmes was a major concern, she said: ‘Time and money which should be spent on the core purpose of the public sector — delivering for the public — is being wasted on woke hobby horses… Most of these kinds of EDI programmes — especially when delivered by private companies or campaigning organisations— are not transparent, and their benefits unproven. If we can’t prove their worth, then they don’t pass the public interest test. So I’m determined to stop it.’

The speech struck a chord with many – though not all. Number 10 announced that Rishi Sunak himself would not be wearing a rainbow lanyard but nor would he be banning others from doing so. New official guidelines issued on Tuesday made no mention of lanyards and the policy was not raised with other government ministers. Grant Shapps, the defence secretary, had this to say: ‘Personally, I don’t mind people expressing their views on these things. What lanyard somebody wears doesn’t particularly concern me.’ He was, he said, “more interested in the jobs that the civil service do’ than what they wore.

And Andrew Mitchell, a minister of state, said principles of equality and inclusion within Britain’s 500,000-strong civil service “matter enormously”. He told Times Radio: ‘Obviously we’ve got to ensure we’re providing value for money for taxpayers and there aren’t unnecessary positions that are not needed in the civil service, which are paid for by taxpayers’ money.’ But he also said that Whitehall had made ‘huge progress’ and ‘we gain enormously from having that advantage’. The work that has been done to help those from all backgrounds rise up the civil service has been a ‘very good thing’.

So what, if anything, is likely to change as a result of the new guidelines?

Government officials will, from now on, be prevented from spending public money on ‘diversity consultants’ and civil service staff networks for minority groups ‘will be checked to ensure they are not distracting from the day job or becoming centres of political activism.’

Here’s how the guidelines put it: ‘Civil servants must not allow their personal political views to determine any advice they give or their actions. Although this guidance specifically references the delivery of diversity and inclusion, it applies to any work-related activity that supports the Civil Service to be more inclusive, whether that is directly supporting ministers and the government in fulfilling their duties, such as when developing and delivering policy, organising or engaging in learning and development activities or participating in staff networks.”

In other words, civil servants must leave their personal views and political preferences at home. And the message to those who insist on such ‘woke’ gestures as stating their ‘preferred pronouns’ was clear: they must not be penalised if they refuse to do so. It must be a ‘personal and voluntary decision’.

Some argue that all this is too little and too late because there are already reckoned to be as many as 10,000 EDI officers in the public sector and that, they say, is far too many. They claim that so-called ‘diversity officers’ insist on highlighting differences which most workers are too busy even to notice. They accept that there will, inevitably, be cases of prejudice against people of a different race or religion or sexuality because we all have our individual views and the most egregious offenders should be punished but, they say, it has all got out of hand.

The sociologist Professor Frank Furedi agrees. He argues that the anti-Israel protesters on university campuses illustrate a fundamental transformation of the university culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, he writes, students were treated as adults responsible for their own lives. It was assumed they were mature enough to conduct their own personal affairs and if things went wrong, they were expected to live with the consequences.

Today’s ‘therapy culture’, he says, has turned students into ‘children who must be insulated against all adversity, criticism and pressure. Universities prepare advertising brochures for parents whom they tacitly promise to keep their children safe.’ Such a transformation, says Furedi, has turned students into biologically mature children.

The Times writer Melanie Phillips agrees with Furedi that our new therapy culture and ‘snowflake’ meltdowns over campus ‘micro-aggressions’ and ‘safe spaces’ has reframed the life challenges faced by young people as mental disorder.

And nor is she impressed when, back in 2021, civil servants routinely began to add their preferred pronouns to their email signatures.

‘These pronouns are rarely surprising,’ she observes sardonically, ‘I have never found myself thinking: “Thank heavens you gave me a steer on the she/her thing, or I'd have got it wrong.' They are intended, in other words, not as helpful information, but as tribal signifiers, a way of saying: 'I Am A Good Person Who Believes In Diversity'. The trouble is that 95 per cent of the country are not part of that tribe. Or, more precisely, 95 per cent of the country believes that sex is a biological reality.’

The real problem, she says, is that every time government officials make these gestures, however apparently trivial, they remove themselves a little further from the public. So she describes what Esther McVey is trying to do as a ‘a series of common-sense ideas aimed at increasing efficiency.’

Do you agree? Did you silently applaud when you read the new guidelines on EDI? Or do you fear the return to what many would describe as the bad old days when many people routinely suffered discrimination at work because of their race, religion or sexuality? And are you happy to wear a rainbow lanyard?

Let us know.

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